Transforming Behaviour in the Classroom: A Solution-Focused Guide for New Teachers


Geoffrey James

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    About the author

    Geoffrey James I started teaching in my mid-forties, on supply in mainstream schools and then on the staff of a special school, full of hope and ideas. Before that I’d been a research biologist, a small-scale farmer and an outdoor educator for people with learning disabilities, among other things. After a few years’ class teaching, I moved to the educational support service for a local authority, where I worked on my PhD exploring the field of behaviour. When I stepped into teaching twenty years ago I could see the need to do something different from the old failing routines of punishment and control. Finding a way to teach better behaviour in a creative and exciting way rather than trying to stamp out bad behaviour by force has made a remarkable difference to me as a working teacher and to the many people – adults and children – who I’ve worked with. If behaviour is seen as a force to be resisted, it can be exhausting trying to withstand and defeat it. In the course of ten years of research and practice I met up with a way of looking for what’s working rather than what’s failing, for what makes people happy and successful in the face of difficulty. It is called ‘solution-focused thinking’ and it’s led to some of the best work I have done in my life and to this book. To start with I thought students’ success must be a fluke, but successes piled up and convinced me that this idea is something of usefulness and importance. Over the years I’ve taken the solution-focused approach into many different situations, to find out just what it can do; individual behaviour support; training professionals in the solution-focused approach; child and adolescent mental health services; organizational and management development; social work training; coaching; team building; and behaviour support and peer coaching in schools. The solution-focused approach and practical solution-support have the potential to produce happiness and success wherever problems occur. A head teacher said one day when I was leaving after completing work with a student, ‘When we want another miracle, we’ll call you’. That’s what it sometimes may look like, but it’s more than that; in schools it is a form of systematic and well-structured good teaching that brings results. It just happens to be about behaviour.


    I have been asked to write a note about this book as a teacher using solution-support successfully. Having seen the approach in action, with support but no direct training, I am putting the approach into action in my infant school.

    As a teacher I feel strongly about learning, in particular, how children learn. Enabling children to develop skills which promote their curiosity and interest in learning has been important to me for a long time. However, more recently I have become more aware of the significance of other factors, such as motivation, perseverance and the sense to which a child believes they can make the difference, their perceived self-efficacy.

    As a school this has caused us to reflect on many areas of our practice. The biggest challenge for us was in addressing the way we used rewards, stickers and praise; something that we’d learnt to accept and promote as ‘good practice’. However, we decided that our use of these needed to be reviewed, in our drive to foster a level of independence in the way children make positive decisions about all areas of their learning. The result, several years on, is that rewards and praise are used purposefully and much less. Over time we’ve come to see that focusing the child’s attention on the effort they’re investing is helping to achieve many of the areas above that we’ve come to value.

    However, it was on reflecting upon how we viewed different areas of learning that resulted in the biggest shift in our thinking. This wasn’t an overnight revelation but came during a period when we were exploring how we fostered academic learning compared to social and emotional learning.

    For some time we had made many changes in the way we promoted learning in the classroom and the gradual shift towards developing effective learning behaviours was starting to have a significant impact. However, while our classroom practice was developing strongly, a wide gap was emerging between this and the way we responded to mistakes and miscues in children’s social and emotional learning – or their behaviour. In short, when children made mistakes with their academic learning, such as with their reading or writing skills, it was viewed as an opportunity to identify their next steps or targets; however, mistakes in social and emotional learning, particularly when it impacted upon other children, were still dealt with through punitive and deficit models whereby children would lose rewards or free time.

    It was coming to understand and view behaviour as outcomes of a child’s social and emotional development, and that all learning is inherently a cognitive process, that prompted this change. We needed to respond to all mistakes in a consistent manner, and this meant challenging many of the entrenched viewpoints about behaviour, many of which were driven by the need for justice, rather than helping a child to prevent further reoccurrences.

    It was at this time we met Geoffrey, who had agreed to work with a child who was finding coping with many areas of school life challenging, mainly due to the high levels of anxiety they experienced. Over the coming weeks we saw signs that the child was relaxing and starting to cope more successfully in school. Notably their levels of anxiety decreased as they started to develop an awareness that they could influence change in their own life.

    From discussions with Geoffrey, over a period of time I started to understand the way he worked with children using the solution-focused approach to the work, particularly the simplicity of the techniques and how the subtleties of the language used resulted in paradigm shifts in children’s thinking. Eager to capitalize on this learning I started to use the approach, usually with children who were not responding to other strategies.

    Since these early encounters, our work and thinking has continued to be strongly influenced by those early conversations with Geoffrey and experiences with children. Conversations focus on enabling children to see what they are achieving and almost always result in their inevitable realization that they have engineered the change that has enabled them to succeed, sowing the seeds that grow and flower as self-efficacy.

    While for us there is still much more to learn, recently hearing one child offer a younger child the possibility that they were being ‘successful’ rather than ‘good’, the term the younger child had used, highlights how our work is able to change the way children view themselves and others. The same younger child is starting to believe that they can bring about the change they want to see, to enable them to cope better in school. I am working with this 6-year-old child at the moment, who is responding really well and has finally learnt to say ‘successful’ and is slowly understanding what this means. A few days ago I dropped the golden question ‘What is it about you …?’ to see if the child can think about what it is about personally, and which strengths and resources led to success – this is still such a hard question to tackle!

    While the journey is often ‘two steps forward and one step back’, having an approach which opens up conversations where we can celebrate that we’re still ‘one step further forward’ is liberating for both myself and the children I work with.

    The idea of replacing failure and punishment with success and a growing sense of self-efficacy in children has brought more happiness into our lives and a new professional dynamic into our school. This book gives you the opportunity to walk this path and I can recommend it to you.

    Andy Tovell, Headteacher


    I have written this book as a guide for new teachers working in either primary or secondary education, on an approach that has the potential to transform behaviour in schools. The book is an inquiry into behaviour, aimed at developing understanding and practice together. We will be rethinking some common assumptions and opening up a new practical approach to changing behaviour. As with any teaching, it is only your own motivation to learn and to develop as a learner that can bring the hopes expressed in this book to fruition. As a teacher, I understand your need as a learner to sense your own autonomy, expertise and purpose in the journey we are starting here. My role is to walk with you along this path, as your guide and mentor, through the course of the book and into your classroom. Let’s get started.

    Chapter 1 explores general aspects of behaviour management and introduces the concept of the solution-focused approach to behaviour and making connections between theory and practice in relation to teaching behaviour. Chapter 2 ‘What do we mean by behaviour?’ asks you to rethink behaviour as an aspect of overall learning and teaching rather than as a separate category of problems to be managed. It does this by exploring the connections between your values and beliefs and your practice in teaching behaviour.

    Chapter 3 ‘Becoming the best teacher you can be’ covers planning classroom management and incorporating solution-focused teaching as a pedagogical inquiry approach to changing behaviour. Chapter 4 ‘Developing confidence in practice’, explores what can affect your confidence in your role as a teacher of behaviour, and offers guidance on making plans to strengthen and grow your practice.

    Chapter 5 ‘Making sense of behaviour problems’ looks at how you can identify what type of behaviour problem you are dealing with and the best problem-solving approach to take. Chapter 6 ‘Being solution focused in school’ offers an introduction to the structure of solution-support and taking the first steps in its use.

    Chapter 7 ‘Talking about pedagogy’ reflects on the important teaching concept of pedagogy and makes connections with teaching for behaviour change. Chapter 8 ‘Motivation and changing behaviour’ considers how change is motivated and how you can support student motivation to change behaviour.

    Chapter 9 ‘Changing habits and changing thinking’ explores what might be going on in the inside when you take a particular approach to a student’s changing behaviour.

    Chapter 10 ‘The practical work of changing behaviour’ builds on the earlier chapters of the book to provide a practical framework for applying a solution-focused approach to your teaching. It draws together your new learning and practice, strengthening your clear, practical understanding of solution-support and reflecting on its application in your own circumstances.

    Evidence of change

    Throughout this book I will be offering you evidence about the effectiveness of solution-support as a teaching approach to changing behaviour. The first piece of this practice-based evidence is in the form of a letter from a mother, addressed to me about work that her young son Adam and I did together. It was straightforward solution-support, and demonstrates the potential of this approach to produce useful change and a successful outcome in a complex situation. It was the result of study, practice and the methodical application of a teaching approach: solution-support.

    Solution-focused thinking and its practical application through solution-support are at the heart of this book. The good news is that it is something you can learn to use yourself as a teacher, in real situations where you can make the kind of difference that you will read about now. You will meet Adam himself in Chapter 5.

    How did that happen? You will find out as you read on.


    I am very grateful for the encouragement and support that has been so kindly given to me over many years by all of my close family, to Professor Ivor Goodson who opened a door, smiling, to Evan George and Harvey Ratner, and other solution-focused partners in many places. I’ve been propped up and constructively criticized by my friends Drs Jeremy and Janet Anscombe, Tim Greenhill, Colin Stanwell-Smith, Tim Taylor, and my writing has been fully enabled by James Clark and the team at SAGE.

    And as a final note, I’m ever grateful to Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg who had the vision to think and to do something different, to go looking for solutions and who left us with questions.

    You can contact me through my website and I welcome every opportunity to talk about solution-focused work, at any level of detail.

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